"Natasha is a nickname given to prostitutes with Eastern European looks.
Sex-trafficked girls hate it."

Sex trafficking is the most profitable illegal business. It begins with the offer of
a well-paid job in a world of dreams. The moment the woman agrees to take the
job of a retailer, nanny, bartender or something innocuous like this, the business starts running. She will have all the documents and travelling expenses paid by the traffickers, with the obligation of returning the debt out of her first month’s income. I learned about it from the women who had survived sexual slavery and succeeded in returning to their home country.

In the summer of 2006, I went to the Republic of Moldova, the poorest country
in Europe, and the main exporter of sex slaves for the whole continent. I went to
see how they managed to live with the traumas they had experienced in a world
that knows nothing about their suffering; how they lived under a huge shadow
of fear that a mother or husband might find out and throw them out in the
street. I stepped into a shelter for survivors of sex trafficking.

Always holding tight the little fist of her two-year old daughter, Dalia was the first one I met. She introduced me to the rest of the girls living at the shelter. Nadia, Aurelia, Corina, Clarisa, Ana, Cristina … They would all gather in the evenings and share their stories … with appalling details.

Acquaintances, close friends, relatives or boyfriends sell a girl for $200, $500,
even $2,000, depending on how attractive or financially appealing the girl is.
Once arrived in the country of destination, the girls are taken into brothels,
their passports confiscated, and immediately put to work as prostitutes.

They are supposed to be free after they pay back this debt, but they invariably get
sold to another pimp. It’s a vicious circle that generates a lot of money. It keeps the business running and the girls in captivity. Every day they are raped, fisted, bent backwards, pissed on, badly beaten up. They never receive money from the client or the pimp. They are not allowed to contact anybody. Escaping traffickers is not easy. It’s not a simple case that one can just jump out of a window and she is free, especially when some of the regular clients are police officers. Being illegal out there can be more dangerous than living in a brothel. Most of the time their visas get renewed even though they are kept in captivity.

I met seventeen women who had been sex trafficked. Some of them too fragile;
some very strong, trying to leave behind an unwanted past. I explained the
reasons for my work in detail to every woman I photographed. I had to be both
discreet and protective. These women were still dealing with strong emotional
issues. In respect to their identity, all the names have been changed.

One year later, I stayed at Dalia’s place, in a small village in the south of
Moldova. The walls of the one-room cottage were cracked. It was too cold at
night to sleep. The next morning we took the public transport to Chisinau. Dalia
was on her way to Moscow, looking for work.

There are uncountable reported and unreported cases of missing women. I went through the Moldovan villages, to look at the ghostly emptiness of the places where a while ago the missing women used to be a natural presence; the family left behind living in hope that one day they will see their mother, daughter, wife, sister again; kids that cannot even miss their mother as they don’t remember
how she looks; the woman who buried her daughter after eight years of disappearance; the little altar built around one old picture; the half-empty cup in
the deserted house; the bed of a fifteen-year old, gone.

In London I met Svetlana, a young Moldovan who was sex trafficked into the UK. She took me by my hand and pointed at specific windows of Soho flats. In her
knowledge, the cracked window was a “stinky” place; the red light one, a bit
trendier. I entered five workrooms, all alive. Many of these rooms hosted sex
slaves, brought in daily and obliged to do prostitution. In one hour, I encountered
two Romanians. One was wearing tiny white socks and a pink house-robe
thrown over the black spandex costume. She was from a city two hours from
my native town.


Editor's Note: "not Natasha" will be on show at Photo Fusion, London until September 18, 2009

This exhibition was commissioned by Autograph ABP and is accompanied by an artist’s book, including an essay for Foam magazine written by Mark Sealy.

not Natasha
by Dana Popa, 2009
Published by
Autograph ABP
Edited by Mark Sealy and Emma Boyd
165 x 120 mm
96 pages

ISBN: 978-1-899282-08-1

Dana Popa is a photo-artist based in London who graduated from the London College of Communication. She specializes in contemporary social issues, with a particular emphasis on human rights.

In 2007,
"not Natasha" received the Jury Prize in the Days Japan International Photojournalism Awards and the Jerwood Photography Award. Popa's work has been exhibited widely, including at the Noorderlicht Photofestival in Leeuwarden, the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts in Tokyo and in the exhibition Moving Walls 14 at the Open Society Institute in New York. 

Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally to educate the public in photography with a particular emphasis on cultural identity and human rights.